Sexual Abuse (Incest): Right Under Our Nose

Timothy Paul's picture

Body: 

Sexual Abuse (Incest): Right Under Our Nose

Hard Topics You Can’t Afford to Avoid

Published on March 20, 2013 by John T. Chirban, Ph.D, Th.D. in The Age of Un-Innocence

SOURCE: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-age-un-innocence/201303/sexual-abuse-incest-right-under-our-nose

While for most of us the thought of sexual violation of our child by a family member is frightening to imagine; yet it happens all too frequently, and the impact on a child lasts a lifetime. Researchers explain the difficult to accurately estimate the prevalence of incest, as most occurrences remain unreported. Various studies indicate the percentage of incest victims in the general population at about 10 to 20 million, most commonly beginning when a child is between the ages of eight and twelve. The earlier the victim was abused, the more repressed the memory; therefore, younger victims are more prone to forget their earlier experiences.

Sexual abuse, incest, and sexual deviation are among the most difficult topics for parents to discuss with their children. When I began practicing as a psychologist, I found it awkward even to ask patients about such issues when taking their history. I quickly learned, however, that a caring ear was much needed around these topics. It’s critical that we discuss these topics openly for the safety and long-term welfare of all children. The last thing you want to do is make your children feel uncomfortable, ashamed, or afraid to talk about abuse--of any kind. Consider these experiences of two young women:

Megan: It’s Worse Than You Think

Megan had reached her early 30s without experiencing a loving relationship. Every partnership in her life had turned out abusive in one way or another. During one of our sessions, she described her childhood and, based on the things she said, I asked if she had ever been subjected to sexual abuse.

She looked a bit taken aback by my question. It was clear I had touched a sore spot. She began crying and said, “When I was a teenager, my uncle would force me to have sex with him, and my father did the same thing to my sister.”

I gave her a few moments to regain her composure. Her next response was even more chilling: “What really has thrown me all these years is wondering why my father picked my sister and not me.”

Though sexually assaulted by her uncle, the greatest issue to Megan was not that a family member had violated her, but that her father chose her sister over her, for which she felt rejection in her home of emotional deprivation. Though we can consider his behavior deplorable, for Megan the worse insult was that her father had not “chosen” her.

Megan’s judgment was distorted. Her perspective on the desire of her father, at the supreme cost of the dignity of her body and person, reflects the deep neediness of a child as well as the emotional price paid when a child is the subject of incest. And incest indeed occurs far more often than we would like to admit—in fact, one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually violated before the age of 18. Statistics show that 25 percent of incest perpetrators are uncles and 15 percent fathers, but there are no clear predictors of which types of families will experience incest. Incest and sexual abuse may occur in the most unlikely of situations, and by the most unexpected persons. Another of my patients shared this experience with me:

 

Marilyn: Struggling beneath a Facade

Marilyn was an attractive student in her early 20s who came to see me, describing restlessness, insomnia, and muscle tension that she attributed to her career path and relationships.

Very adept and able to reflect articulately on her experiences, she quickly learned relaxation and assertiveness training and readily reviewed her early development to gain insight into her relationships. The daughter of a renowned physician, she emphasized how much she enjoyed life to its fullest and felt good about her parents and her eleven brothers and sisters. She appeared to effortlessly explore and major areas of her life, details of her personality, and experiences with her family members.

Though citing stress as her primary reason for seeking therapy, Marilyn was pleasant, warm, and affectionate. As the months of therapy ensued and she moved through relatively basic issues, I began to wonder: Why, if she still in treatment after a year and a half? What had we missed?

Marilyn had already volunteered information about her sexuality; she had described a healthy sexual relationship with her fiancé. It was clear that she continued to want to talk, though the conversation seemed somewhat general rather than problem-focused or particularly emotional. I finally shared these observations and asked if she felt we were getting to her real concerns. Was there something that she hadn’t been able to discuss?

For months she continued to dodge such questions, reassuring that she found our time together helpful and important. One afternoon, however, her demeanor was different. In a quiet voice and a subdued manner, she finally said. “There is something else.”

Between the ages of 11 and 14, her older brother had forced her to perform sexual acts. Though her initial recollection was vague, her eyes welled up as she disclosed the surfacing details. Beneath the buoyant and delightful veneer was a very hurt, sad, and guilt-ridden woman, deeply in pain.

No longer feeling the need to circle issues or hold back memories, torrents of emotions broke forth. I learned of the intimidation, humiliation, and sexual abuse she had suffered. We finally located the hidden, central source of Marilyn’s various psychological struggles. Only in looking back did it become clear to me that Marilyn had, consciously or not, talked with me for almost two years to establish the safety needed to confront her vulnerability. She had known from the beginning what “the issue” was, but she first wanted to be sure she could talk about it with me.

I will not go into detail about how Marilyn’s brother, fiancé, and family members participated in her treatment, resulting in a positive reconciliation and healing for her. Instead, I want to return to the importance of being open with our kids about such issues so that they can avoid the horrible experience of repression and guilt that Marilyn went through.

Feeling safe to speak out is essential for a victim to discuss sexual violation—particularly if the perpetrator is someone we expect to trust, such as a member of the family, teacher, or member of the clergy. Typically, perpetrators of sexual crimes very carefully cover their tracks through intimidation and threats to the security of the victim. They stalk—not unlike predators in the wild—choosing as prey the most vulnerable and unsuspecting.

Addressing incest and sexual abuse with your own children is not easy, particularly if you feel you might be planting unnecessary fears concerning the behavior of relatives, family members, and acquaintances. I suggest using the opportunity of the unfortunately all-too-common related news stories to raise the topic. Let your kids know that these things do occur, and that you are available to discuss any situation they encounter that they feel uncomfortable with. Keeping the lines of communication open is not just a matter of advertising their freedom to “talk to you about anything.” Rather, show them your openness through noticeable efforts to discuss personal matters and be helpful with their feelings and concerns. They need to know that you believe them and care enough to consider what they might be going through. This shows them not just that you care but that you know how to care. When facing so powerful a violation as incest or sexual abuse—either personally or in response to the news—you may feel beside yourself with rage and despair. But it’s vital to remember that your child needs to know that their feelings are your preeminent concern.

We also need to keep in mind that abuse can be very subtle—sometimes hidden beneath seemingly innocent acts of taunting, kidding, or even having fun.  Helping your children understand and own their physical body, set boundaries, recognize when lines have been crossed, and how to respond is especially essential when we consider its importance in helping our kids say no to situations of abuse. 

 

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology atHarvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.